The 9th edition of the ETSC was played at the International Olympic Academy Golf Course in Costa Navarino, Greece. The course is one of two 18-hole par-72 golf courses designed for the area by the world-famous golfer and two-time Masters champion José María Olazábal. Located at Navarino Hills, the 125-hectare golf haven was named the “World’s Best New Golf Development” at the 2020 World Golf Awards.

Team Malta’s make-up saw a slight deviation from previous years. Ruud Critien and Laurens Schulze Doering were retained in the team and were accompanied by Oliver Stuart and Liam Debattista who are totally new to the competition. Liam is 23 years of age and plays golf around Wentworth. The team had the expertise of Andy Borg who took on the role of a non-playing team captain and were accompanied by the undersigned.

Ten other teams entered the competition – all hailing from developing golf countries. These are Albania, Andorra, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Georgia, Greece, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Serbia and Ukraine.

Laurens was first off at 10:50 followed by Ruud; Liam and Oliver at one-hour intervals. With respective scores of level par, +6, +8 and +9 for an aggregate team score of +14, the team placed second with Greece placing first. Laurens level par score placed him in a three-way tied first position. Malta’s placing meant that the team had to face Serbia in the first round of the match play knockout stages of the tournament.

The match play rounds consisted of one foursomes match followed by two single matches. Two wins out of three matches ensure that the team makes it to the next round of the competition.

The match play format of the tournament saw Ruud and Liam teeing it up first as a foursomes’ pair followed by Laurens and Oliver in individual matches. The Maltese players started out strongly and were leading 3-up; 2-up and 2-up respectively early in their rounds. However, the Serbian boys emulated what they did in the previous year’s competition and started to come back in the middle holes to eradicate Malta’s advantage in the matches and take all three to the full extent of the course.

With the foursomes’ match needing a long ruling on the 15th hole, Laurens and his playing opponent were hailed to play through. Their match remained halved after 18 holes which meant that the players had to continue to play an extra hole. The foursomes’ duo started the last hole 1-up and their best golf was needed to win the last hole and thus their match 2-up. Oliver found himself in a similar position and a birdie on the last hole also gave him a win of 2-up for the match and to ascertain Malta’s progression to the semi-final round. Whilst this was happening, Laurens was conceding the 19th hole to his opponent for a final team result of 2 matches to 1.

Malta’s were drawn to meet Bulgaria in the semi-final round. Bulgaria won against Luxembourg by securing two matches and halving the third. The other semi-finalists were Cyprus and Greece (last year’s winners) who won against Liechtenstein and Albania respectively.

Andy decided to retain the same team formation as the quarter final round. The foursomes struggled to put together a string of good golf which saw them going three down in the early stages of the match. They managed to claw back up to only 1 down at the end of the 12th hole which position was retained whilst they were playing the 16th hole. Three holes back, Oliver was shaking hands with his opponent for a 6&5 win. Oliver started strongly by winning the first three holes and never forfeited being ahead. As Oliver walked towards the clubhouse, Laurens was winning his match. The boy was down early but managed to bring it all square at the 9th hole. From here, Laurens found his best game and won his match 4&3.

With these two wins out of three, Malta’s fate into the finals was secured and was signaled to the foursomes match ahead. In a spirit of sportsmanship, the Malta pair conceded their match at that point.

By beating Bulgaria, Malta made it to its third successive year into the final round of the ETSC and were to face Greece who won against Cyprus. Whilst Cyprus and Bulgaria were tp battle it out for bronze medal, the match between Malta and Greece placed these two countries in a similar head-to-head battle as last year. The final round was scheduled for a 12 noon start and saw a slight change in the team formation. Ruud and Oliver were chosen to play in the foursomes; followed by Laurens and then Liam.

My reports on the tournaments, that I witnessed when I was around with any of our national players playing abroad, were usually centred on their performance on the golf course… how many shots they hit… how many holes they were up or down… how they won or lost their matches. This time the report on the final round is somewhat different.

The hard fact is that Malta lost to Greece. The hard fact is that this is the third successive silver medal for the Malta team, its fourth in the ETSC to tally with the other four bronze medals making Malta the team that has stood most on the podium over the nine years of the competition. The hard fact is that gold remains elusive. The hard fact is that, over two successive years, Malta lost to Greece albeit this time it could be claimed that the Greek players had the luxurious advantage of playing in their backyard.

But the hard fact is also that the Malta players went through the week at Costa Navarino in an exemplary manner. Under the captaincy of Andy; Ruud, Liam, Laurens and Oliver were impeccable ambassadors for the game itself, for their club and for their country. A pledge to be there for each other and for the game was never faltered, at any instance. The MGA commends such behaviour and looks forward to many more similar occurrences in future participations abroad. Despite their loss to the hosting team, our players should be proud of their achievements over these last few days. They performed well in the qualifying round to place second, behind Greece, and were tested hard by Serbia and Bulgaria in the match play rounds before having to face Greece. All match play rounds were highly contested and all, bar one, progressed to the final one or two holes before a winner could be determined. Including the practice round, the week saw each player handling almost 90 holes of golf in hot and windy weather on a well presented yet “big” golf course.

The final was a fitting end to the tournament. The foursomes match did not see an advantage of more than one hole to either side before Ruud and Oliver eventually winning their match on the 18th hole with this margin. Liam’s match remained all square after six holes but then he lost 7 and 8 to go two down. Despite a valiant fight, his opponent did not capitulate and won his match on the 17th. Malta’s hopes rested on the shoulders of Laurens who was 1 up after 16 holes.

Bobby Jones said that “Golf is assuredly a mystifying game. It would seem that if a person has hit a golf ball correctly a thousand times, he should be able to duplicate the performance at will. But such is certainly not the case.”

After a good tee shot on 17, the mystery of golf hit Laurens to make him lose the hole and bring the match to all square. This meant that the fate of the Shield was down to the performance on the 18th hole. Laurens’ tee shot found the fairway bunker from which he could not again “wilfully duplicate his usual performance”.

Naturally, Laurens felt the disappointment for letting himself and the team down and naturally the players felt individually devastated of losing gold in the smallest of margins possible. Could they individually have mastered the “mystery” and assure a win? Perhaps! But this was never an individual quest for glory. This was, is and will forever be nothing else but a team effort. And the 2023 team players did not fail in their overall quest. They (and we) should be able to take away the many positives and learning experiences that this tournament gave. Golf, life and character-building lessons have been learnt over this last week. Well done team. The MGA and the country are proud of your achievements as we are proud of the achievements of those players that have been part of the national team since the formation of the MGA. You have all set the bar for future youngsters that will come forward to play the game and we are confident that gold in the ETSC will be achieved soon.

Until then… read it, roll it and hole it!

William Beck
President - Malta Golf Association
7th August 2023